In a speech given earlier today, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, Yleem Poblete, mentioned that a Russian satellite made a series of maneuvers that are “inconsistent” with its expected behavior, and is behaving in a manner that suggests it could be some manner of space weapon.
Poblete said in her speech at the Conference of Disarmament in Geneva,
... in October of last year the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed a space object they claimed was a “space apparatus inspector.” But its behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities. We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared “space apparatus inspector.” We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it. But Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development – particularly, when considered in concert with statements by Russia’s Space Force Commander who highlighted that “assimilate[ing] new prototypes of weapons [into] Space Forces’ military units” is a “main task facing the Aerospace Forces Space Troops.
Very little seems to actually be known about the satellite; in looking at launches from October 2017, I can’t even find a likely candidate. It’s possible the satellite was launched earlier in the year, and activated a bit later.
There is a satellite that does seem to meet these criteria: Kosmos 2521 (Sputnik Inspektor). This was a small sub-satellite that was deployed from another satellite, Kosmos 2519, on August 23, 2017. The purpose of Kosmos 2519 is not known, but it appears to be on some manner of remote sensing mission.
The Sputnik Inspektor itself then released Kosmos 2523, Russian nesting-doll-style, and that deployment happened on October 30 2017. While the Sputnik Inspektor may be the ‘mothership,’ the October deployment of Kosmos 2523 could be what much of this concern is about.
Or, Kosmos 2523 could be the satellite inspector itself, as one Nasaspaceflight.com forum poster suggests:
““satellite-platform” = Kosmos-2519
“small satellite launched from the platform” = Kosmos-2521
“satellite inspector” = Kosmos-2523”
These satellites are definitely military in nature, and what they’re actually doing up there isn’t clear. The Russian Ministry of Defense did issue a statement about the satellite last August:
On June 23 of this year, a spacecraft developed for the Russian Ministry of Defense was launched from Plesetsk Cosmodrome. That spacecraft represents a space platform which can carry different variants of payloads. Today, from that platform, took place the separation of a small spacecraft intended for the inspection of the condition of a Russian satellite. Later on, a scientific experiment is being planned to study that satellite’s external appearance with the small (inspector) spacecraft.
The “small (inspector) spacecraft” is the one deployed in October, Kosmos-2523, that seems to be what all the fuss is about.
Exactly what Kosmos-2523 is doing that is so alarming has not been made clear; has it “inspected” non-Russian satellites? Is it a test of a satellite-killer system designed to cripple an enemy’s orbital assets? Whoever does know these answers isn’t talking.
All we do really know is that Kosmos-2523 has made the U.S. State Department sufficiently nervous to make the alarming statements they made.